‘Clifford Owens: Better the Rebel You Know’ opens at Cornerhouse, Manchester on 10 May, 2014

Clifford Owens: Better the Rebel You Know

Cornerhouse, Manchester

10 May – 17 August 2014

Curated by Daniella Rose King

This summer Cornerhouse in Manchester will host the first major European show by American conceptual artist Clifford Owens, across all three of its galleries.

Owens’ work explores the intersection of photography, video, text and performance. His practice seeks to challenge the boundaries of performance, and the possibilities of interaction between artist and audience.

The exhibition will include an exclusive UK iteration of Owens’ work Anthology, which debuted at MoMA PS1’s eponymous exhibition in New York in 2011. The work originated from a series of 28 performance ‘scores’: short, diverse sets of instructions (some specific, others open to interpretation) solicited by Owens from a selection of African American artists, from established to emerging figures.

Owens said: “This project originated over a decade ago. In 2000, my thesis research failed to find adequate evidence of black artists’ investment in performance art since the 1950s, but this clearly wasn’t due to a lack of involvement. Rather than lament the lack of historical interest in US-based black artists and performance art, I chose to imagine my own history.

“The artists who contribute the scores drive the emotional ‘gestalt’ represented in Anthology; I am the conduit for transmitting profoundly powerful messages from a group of enormously talented artists. My body is attached to this body of work; it is the container and conveyor of its meaning. The presence of and engagement with the audience in the live performances is also critical to the project.”

For the UK edition, which will be the first time Anthology has been undertaken outside the US, Owens has gathered scores from 20 British artists, again from across generations, whose work considers ideas of race, class, difference, marginalisation, multiculturalism and Diaspora in the UK since the 1950s.


The Artists Include:

  • 2013 Turner Prize-nominated Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose score instructs Owens to “Give people what they need. Emphasis on NEED, not want. Your care should know no bounds.” Owens will enact this score in Manchester prior to the opening of the exhibition.
  • London-based artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah OBE, who founded the seminal Black Audio Film Collective in 1982 and whose latest film, The Stuart Hall Project, screened at Cornerhouse in 2013, who will contribute a new single screen video with sound designed for Owens to interact with.
  • Artist Sonia Boyce MBE, whose score is in the form of a short sound piece titled Freedom Again.
  • Godfried Donkor, who instructs Owens to “…investigate and research the 18th century American phenomenon of the ‘battle royal’* , especially how it reflected the African American community from slavery onwards. Once the research is over Cliff should perform the ‘battle royal’ involving the audience whenever possible …” (*a battle royal was a bare-knuckled fight between a number of blindfolded African American men, often slaves, staged as an entertainment).
  • Other artists who have contributed scores are Qasim Riza Shaheen (who will also be showcased in a solo show of newly-commissioned work at Cornerhouse 6 Sep – 2 Nov 2014), Simon Fujiwara, Oreet Ashery, Larry Achiampong, Kimathi Donkor, Dinu Li, Hetain Patel, David Blandy, Humberto Velez, Shezad Dawood, Lubaina Himid, Jack Tan, Sonia Boyce, Doug Fishbone, Harold Offeh and Suki Chan.


Owens will spend two weeks at Cornerhouse in May 2014 to interpret and perform a selection of these scores in a white cube space in Gallery 3, which will be accessible to the public (see Notes). Still and moving images will capture these performances and be added to the exhibition as it progresses, alongside the full set of scores.

In Gallery 2, key photographs, video and installations from Anthology (2011), shown in New York, will be displayed, including Anthology (William Pope.L), Anthology (Glenn Ligon), Anthology (Kara Walker), Anthology (Jacolby Satterwhite) and an exclusive realisation of the only score not produced for the MoMA PS1 show, Anthology (Lyle Ashton Harris).

Opening the exhibition, Gallery 1 will feature the first UK iteration of Owens’ project Photographs with an Audience. In October 2013 the artist invited audience members to take part in the process of creating Photographs with an Audience: Manchester in two evening sessions at Cornerhouse, where he drew on their interpersonal dynamics to construct photographic compositions reflecting their experiences. Some of the resulting images are simple portraits while others capture Owens’ prompts and directives; presented in a series of diptychs and sequences, they seek to question the relationship between action and image.

Photographs with an Audience: Manchester is part of an international project undertaken by Owens with audiences in various cities, as a way of exploring the underlying social tensions and relations within divergent communities. Participant Damian Casserly said: “Cliff included the audience as both subject and object, reminding us of who is represented in photography. His reflections on shared human experiences that are difficult, and sometimes secret, answered the question: ‘what do these people look like?’ – as we participated, the answer was often ‘this is what we look like’.”

Exhibition curator Daniella Rose King said: “It has been an immense pleasure working with Clifford Owens on two significant new commissions – Photographs with an Audience: Manchester and Anthology (2014), and realising these works for new, British audiences. As a prominent figure within the contemporary North American visual and performance art community, Owens’ work offers countless opportunities for understanding and picking apart a recent history of performance practice. The social nuances of his work highlight the shared histories and trajectories with the UK, whilst bringing those divergences to light, too.

“Better the Rebel You Know, like the adage it plays with, seeks to explore Owens’ role as an interlocutor and a polemicist, who often grapples with uncomfortable truths around human experience (such as intimacy, sexuality, race and representation) as well as those at the very heart of a performative and conceptual art practice.”

Artistic Director for Visual Arts and Film, Sarah Perks, said: “Cornerhouse is delighted to have commissioned and produced the first European solo exhibition by Clifford Owens, an extremely important and significant artist at work in the US. It offers is a unique opportunity to encounter his work, which is pushing and reinvigorating the boundaries of ‘performance art’ and garnering important attention and critical responses. Owens promises to be a major contributor to the increasingly visible and diverse canon of performance work which Cornerhouse, and its future incarnation HOME, is developing, in its role as a major centre for the exploration and innovation of performance art.”


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